The year is 2021, and it was no more than a year ago that the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the death of George Floyd, one of countless victims of police brutality against black people in the United States, reminded the world that while the situation of African Americans has improved drastically since the days of slavery, systemic racism is still alive and well in the US – and the rest of the world. It is in this context that Lee Daniels’s 2021 film The United States VS. Billie Holiday, inspired by Johann Hari’s 2015 book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, tells the story of prominent jazz singer and civil rights figure Billie Holiday (played by Andra Day), as she is incessantly targeted by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the fourth and last decade of her life in the 1940’s and 50’s.
While the war on drugs in the US was at its height at the time, led by the FBN’s first commissioner Harry J. Anslinger (played in the film by Garrett Hedlund), its targeting of Holiday over her heroin addiction was primarily an excuse to force her out of the cabaret scene in response to her song Strange Fruit, which denounces the lynching of black people by the Ku Klux Klan. The film also gives a central place to her relationship with Jimmy Fletcher (played by Trevante Rhodes), a black Federal Agent tasked with tracking her every move and with whom she develops a romantic relationship.
Andra Day’s masterful performance as the titular historical figure is definitely one of the highlights of the film. The singer, who released her debut album Cheers to the Fall in 2015 and based her own stage name on Holiday’s, puts her heart and soul into portraying the latter as she moves black America with her music, pioneering vocal techniques that would redefine jazz and inspire countless artists, while struggling behind the scenes with drug addiction, a complicated love life and the government’s efforts to get her arrested. Despite being arrested several times and serving a year in prison, and having a tumultuous relationship with Fletcher despite his incessant efforts to get her arrested, going so far as to frame her, she continues singing until the day she is transported to the hospital for a cirrhosis, where she would spend the last days of her life.
The film also shows Fletcher’s struggle between his dedication to his job and his role as the first black person to achieve his rank in the federal hierarchy, and the damage he is causing to the lives of Holiday and her friends as well as the civil rights cause. His troubled relationship with Holiday leads him to consuming heroin himself, and he eventually remains close to her even after she gets married, ultimately quitting his job as Anslinger and the FBN continue to target her even on her deathbed. He would later regret his actions.
At the same time, the film somewhat suffers from a disjointed structure, composed of episodic segments with sometimes no transition between them, and sometimes merging two scenes together and creating a confusing timeline. However, unlike many critics who point this out as a glaring flow that ruins the entire movie, it personally did not detract me, unlike the presence of various side characters who are not properly introduced and whose role may be confusing to people who are not familiar with the film’s subject. Overall, I think this negative aspect was blown out of proportion by critics.
*Caution – movie spoilers ahead*
One thing I agree was confusing however is the flashback of Holiday’s childhood, which is presented as Fletcher’s fever dream while high on heroin, in which Holiday as a child guides him throughout important moments of her childhood. The scene with the lynching and the wooden house is also confusing as to whether it is actually happening in the moment or another heroin-induced flashback. This does not reduce its emotional impact however, especially when it is followed by Holiday performing Strange Fruit on the stage. In fact, as someone who was not familiar with Billie Holiday, this reveal of what her dreaded “fruit song” is actually about was my favourite moment in the film, and it was beautifully done.
The film also has a healthy amount of comedic scenes, such as the one where one of Holiday’s concerts is cancelled due to a death in the family, only to realise that the one who passed away was her dog, giving it moments of lighthearted relief from the angst of its overall terrible context.
Overall, The United States VS. Billie Holiday is a beautiful film, and an important one that despite its flaws reminds us of the struggles of African Americans which persist to this day, as demonstrated by recent news stories such as the death of George Floyd or Georgia’s voter suppression laws. Thankfully things are slowly progressing, and the recent legalisation of cannabis will hopefully mark the beginning of the end of the war on drugs and its inherently racist motivations. Lady Day’s legacy lives on.
The United States VS. Billie Holiday releases in Australia on April 22nd 2021.